The Australian Ballet

Swan Lake: The Music

Artistic Director David McAllister, Music Director and Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon, and Resident Choreographer Stephen Baynes talk with Rose Mulready about Tchaikovsky’s revolutionary score for Swan Lake.

Music queen

Rose: Swan Lake has been called “the most massacred ballet score in history”. How did we arrive at the version of the score we use today?

David: There are pieces of music that people use and pieces of music that they don’t. If you listen to the whole recording, it goes for something like four hours, and so in every production there are things that are included or discarded.

Nicolette: There isn’t an original, hand-written Tchaikovksy score, or even a score from the very first performance in existence; no one’s been able to find one. From the moment it was first performed, various people mucked around with the order of the piece and added extra pas de deux for different dancers. Some people have attempted reconstructions, and one of the best sources for that has been the posters that advertised the performance, and which list the numbers in order. Posters from the original performances exist, and they show how quickly the order changed. However, given that the score was still being written even when rehearsals were starting, who knows if the order of those first performances reflects Tchaikovsky’s intent!

David: When Ivanov and Petipa took it on, after Tchaikovsky had died, that’s when it really got jumbled, as they started playing around with the order.

Stephen: What I find amazing, whether it’s intentional or not, is how much understanding Tchaikovsky seemed to have for the ballet genre, for someone who was not at all experienced. He wrote to a friend along the lines of “I’m quite interested in this ballet thing, I thought I’d have a go at writing it – someone’s asked me.”

Nicolette: He’d seen quite a lot of ballet performances, and his writings do show that he actually really loved the genre and he loved the idea of doing it, but still, he agonised over it. At that time, ballet composers were thought of as pretty second-rate.

Stephen: They composed to order, didn’t they? “We need eight bars of mazurka!”

Nicolette: They did, and he did, even for The Sleeping Beauty. It was still “I want eight bars of this, and I want a happy number here”. They were a bit like advertising jingle writers or film composers. He was pretty much given a brief. He certainly thought hard about it, and whether it would be bad for his reputation if he did it, but he decided he would, and thank God he did, because he changed the world of ballet music for ever. He demonstrated that you could still write to a brief but create music that went way beyond that.

In his great ballet scores, and Swan Lake was the real trend-setter for this, he understood that there are places where the dancers need to show off, and that the focus needs to be on them, so the music doesn’t detract from that. Then there are really symphonic moments where the music, through use of keys and rhythm and orchestration and complexity, takes over the storytelling.

Rose: Can you give an example of when that happens in Swan Lake?

Nicolette: From the moment the curtain goes up, even the overture encapsulates the kind of story it will be. Up until then, overtures were happy little dancy numbers which were about getting the audience settled. They might have had a bit of a theme, but they were mostly giving the audience the chance to stop talking, to pack away the picnics or whatever.

Swan Lake starts with this really dramatic theme, firstly in an oboe. It’s actually an inversion of the famous swan theme that comes at the end of Act I and at the start of Act II, and which comes to its final tragic resolution at the end of Act IV. It already sets the scene for something really sad, really mournful. You immediately know we’re not in for a happy little ballet, just from the way Tchaikovsky uses every musical device, from tempo to melody to harmonic changes.

It’s totally miraculous, this score, in the context of ballet music of that period. It’s one of those moments in artistic history that virtually came from nowhere. And the ballet community of the time recognised that genius, even while reviewers were torn. It was like, “We can give a brief to Minkus (who was the court composer at the time), and end up with a lovely score that musically doesn’t move us. Or we can give a brief to Tchaikovsky and get this.” Swan Lake was responsible for the sacking in Russia of all of the tenured ballet composers, and the commissioning of big-name symphonic composers like Glasunov.

Stephen: Rimsky Korsakov … all sorts of people.

David: Yes, then that beautifully segued into Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes.

Nicolette: We wouldn’t have had Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes without Tchaikovsky’s work. Swan Lake set it off, and that led to The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. Diaghilev and Stravinsky talked of the impact that The Sleeping Beauty had on them, and Tchaikovsky was also Prokofiev’s inspiration. Without Swan Lake we wouldn’t have The Rite of Spring, we wouldn’t have Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky made ballet music respectable; he demonstrated what musical genius could do in this genre, and inspired generations.

Rose: What kind of decisions have you made in putting together your version of the score?

Stephen: The last act is actually the most difficult, because there’s only about 15 minutes of music that Tchaikovsky ever wrote for that act. That’s the one that’s been fiddled with a lot, because every choreographer feels there needs to be a pas de deux there – and there sort of does, really – so everyone’s had an idea of where that music should come from. There’s a variation from one of the set pieces which is very often used for that pas de deux, it’s in the The Royal Ballet version. I’m in fact using that music. The [1977 Anne Woolliams version for The Australian Ballet] uses some incidental music from Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet, which fitted very well, and I liked it very much, but my problem with it was that it has a very dramatic middle section, which didn’t fit in to what I wanted to do. Also, it’s just nice to know you’re presenting a score which is Swan Lake and no other music. I think we were fairly keen to do that.

Nicolette: I love the Woolliams, but the Hamlet piece I find horrific because it’s a completely different set of parameters in every sense that suddenly interjects into the fourth act. That fourth act is only 15 minutes, but for me it is better than any symphony Tchaikovsky wrote. It’s dramatically, structurally, and musically perfect as he wrote it and it doesn’t need anything else. I understand why it does in a balletic sense, and why over the years people have put other music in. Of the options, what we are doing is the best.

Stephen: Over the years, the ballet has taken on a life of its own; it has become iconic, and there are expectations, which you shoot yourself in the foot if you ignore. But the biggest challenge theatrically is that fourth act. It’s an incredibly long, Wagnerian climax that sustains over more than 64 bars, and that’s terribly hard to sustain theatrically, so you usually see it drastically cut in every version. And we’ve set ourselves the very difficult task of trying to not cut it, so fingers crossed!

Rose: Nicolette, you’ve said that Tchaikovsky made it easier for conductors to play with music, to stretch it. What makes that possible?

Nicolette: It’s simplicity. In variations, where the dancers are showing off, you need to adapt the tempi for them. You need music that can be played slower, faster, that can move on and still make sense and it doesn’t feel like you’re making a mistake. There aren’t 25 different rhythms and multiple cross-melodies happening at all at once so that if you change tempo you’re likely to have a train wreck in the pit. These pieces aren’t formulaic, they’re still exceptional pieces of music, but they’re relatively simple: there’s a melody and an accompaniment, and that simplicity makes it quite flexible. The genius of Tchaikovsky is that he was one of the best melody writers in history. His use of orchestral colour also comes into it. In Swan Lake, with something like the Dance of the Cygnets, it’s a really simple melody – everyone can sing it – with a bom-bom-bom underneath; but the orchestration of it is brilliant. There’s oboes, then he adds bassoons and flutes; there’s an evolution.

Stephen: For me the greatest example of this is The Nutcracker grand pas de deux, which is one of the most sublimely uplifting pieces of music, and it’s just an octave scale descending.

Nicolette: You can pick any of the Tchaikovsky ballets and they’ve got those moments, those absolute gems. As opposed to, say, a Minkus variation, which is just supporting the steps, every single Tchaikovsky variation you could play on its own and say “Wow – that’s beautiful.”